What logos crave: behind-the-scenes with the logos in Idiocracy

It's Got Electrolytes!

20th Century Fox

How do you describe the futuristic logos in the cult movie Idiocracy? Set in a hilariously dystopian future, the movie foregrounds design in a way few other movies have, with twisted versions of almost every corporate logo.

Graphic designer Ellen Lampl, who made the logos in the film, says it best:

A visual vernacular fusion of Nascar, candy packaging, Mexico handpainted signs and Japanese pop culture…

This is the story of the logos in Idiocracy: how they happened, the amazing ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, and just how the Carl’s Jr. Star got so angry.

A designer’s playground is opened

So how does a designer come to create some of the most iconic fake logos of all time? Lampl recently told the story in an e-mail interview with Trivia Happy. Currently based in L.A., she got her start in Austin. After getting degrees in fine art and art history, she spent a couple of years in advertising before starting a freelance career. Austin’s film scene was a good starting point, and she broke into the big time with The Life of David Gale.

After working on Friday Night Lights, she and production designer Darren Gilford went to Idiocracy (recently, they worked together again on Oblivion). Since then, she’s been a graphic designer on everything from Oz: The Great and Powerful to True Grit (with a host of major movies in between), but Idiocracy remains a unique experience.

“Sometimes in comedy, graphics are the straight man,” she says. “But, in Idiocracy, we let it be absurd, as part of the experience. We realized that life in its present state already had tendencies towards the ridiculous—branding seeps in everywhere—so we let it be over the top.”

How fake movie logos get made, from the Carl’s Jr. Star to FedExxx

Carl's Junior Star

20th Century Fox


20th Century Fox

So how does the process actually work?

Lampl and Gilford brainstormed looks for the movie and presented them to writer/director Mike Judge. Lampl landed on her particular hodgepodge of styles, and then the real work began.

“It was quite the physical feat to produce,” she says, “from costumes to wrapping buildings and cars, coupons to propaganda posters, as well as brand parodies of almost every Fortune 500 company.”

Some logos came from the script, while some came from the designers’ brainstorming sessions. Brawndo and Carl’s Jr. were written, while Lampl made logos for companies like Nastea and Fedexx once the overall look was approved. For Lampl, it was a great release, because “coming from the past constraints of advertising, it was cathartic to have the liberty to be bawdy and irreverent. Making everything ridiculously over-emphasized with bright colors, outlines upon outlines, and exaggerated drop shadows was my personal jab at the world of branding and in-your-face typography.”

Car wash inspiration, lost ideas, and more: the secrets of Idiocracy

Idiocracy Hospital Register

20th Century Fox

All that work led to a movie with a distinctive vision that, as Lampl puts it, shows how “there’s a lot of truth in the humor of the f-you.”

The angry Carl’s Jr. Star showed how “hostility [could be] the most basic form of expression.” Adjusting the look simply required “just a shifting of the eyes and eyebrows. A few bevels here and there.” But whether the work was elegantly simple or painstakingly complex, the same sensibility carried to the rest of the logos in the film.

That patchwork of inspiration shows in the non-corporate logos in the movie. The Police took their special branding from tribal tattoos and pro wrestlers (no, they weren’t specifically inspired by Ed Hardy), while the hospital’s diagnostic machine was patterned after a carwash. They also made money wallpaper for the House of Representin’, the Uhmerican flag, a host of other logos, and an amazing poster for the Oscar-winning film called Ass.

Not all of the ideas are prominent in the film, however. Some designs are only visible if you look carefully, like the SmartSpeek by Omnibro, which helped out with hospital check-in. In the movie, you see the final version in use, but Lampl made a product poster as well.

Smartspeek Poster

20th Century Fox

There were also other versions of the film’s logos when early drafts were being thrown around. For a while, they considered fat bloated type as well as a complete fake html language, which Lampl “really liked, but which also had visual constraints for the quick read on film.” You can see the remnants of that in the Starbucks logo, which has an enclosed <A> and <F>.

Starbucks Logo in Idiocracy

20th Century Fox

There were even entire sections left on the cutting room floor. Superfans will be saddened to learn that a section about The Museum of Fart was cut from the final film (there’s also a glimpse of it on the DVD).  Yes, there was going to be a beautiful display.

Museum of Fart in Idiocracy

20th Century Fox

Making the future understandable, but ridiculous

Years later, the visual legacy of Idiocracy is visible everywhere from Wall-E to real corporate campaigns. Seeing the logos shows just how much work went into making something so stupid.

“Ultimately, we wanted the future world to be understandable, but ridiculous,” Lampl says. “We realized that life in its present state already had tendencies towards the ridiculous—branding seeps in everywhere—so we let it be over the top.”

That’s probably the reason we still remember it all today. And it might be why a lot of people look a little more skeptically at electrolytes.

Buy Buy Buy! from Idiocracy

20th Century Fox

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